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Summoner Wars Tip 1: Don't roll ones and twos

Alec Chapman
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Aside from a minor blip in logging plays that saw my 6 plays split over two titles, the simplest thing to say about my Summoner Wars experience so far is that I absolutely suck at it.

I've really only played against two opponents, Joe and Chris, and my record is 1-5. I don't like having such a poor record at any game and more than any other this is the reason I am forcing myself to play it that many times.

Usually I lose at Summoner wars because I get draw pile fever and run out before my opponent does. This is frequently because I lose units extremely fast. That's not uncommon in summoner wars, of course, but have this uncanny ability to roll 1s and 2s that serves me well on the space race in Twilight Struggle but far worse in card battlefields where an imbalance of luck can be catastrophic. You really want to have the same rate of success as the other player to have a decent chance.

The simple fact is that if you have nothing but bad luck in Summoner Wars you will definitely lose. If you have set up three attacks and roll no hits on any of them, only to be answered by three kills next turn from your opponent (and the resulting magic gains), you're going to have a hard time.

It's rare such a thing can happen of course, with the chances of missing at 1/3 per dice. I just got annoyed when two turns in a row I gave the Jungle Elves archer champion 5 dice to attack Chris' Archangel, only to roll three misses both times. That's 3/5, natch. As this colossal failure was answered by a Vanguard massacre of my poor little elves and lionesses and looking at my empty draw pile, I conceded.

Sigh. I know I blame this partly on luck, but the poor skills to run out of cards two turns before your opponent play a massive part, too.

Luckily SW is fun enough and short enough for me to be willing to go right back into battle next time. I'll just try to not get the draw fever again!
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Fri Apr 6, 2012 5:58 pm
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Humble Pie - how not to blog post, discard tiles and play Mah Jong

Alec Chapman
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To follow up on yesterday’s missive on accepting your own screw ups, it is clear that my method of bashing out blog posts while on hold to clients is not ideal for accurate drafting, since I described Mr Jack as a “perfect information abstract game”. Basically, for those of you as ignorant as me, this is something only a muppet would do (probably Fozzie). Poor example made worse by bad editing. Darn.
 
Anyhoo, I seem to be making a habit of humbling myself in public at the moment, and yesterdays Mah Jong session against
Martin G
United Kingdom
Bristol
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and our respective partners was no exception. After teaching the game in my classic scattergun way (unlike Cosmic I’ve only taught Mah Jong to new players twice and haven’t got my patter down) and after Martin took a chicken hand in the first turn he proceeded to tear the rest of the table to pieces, scoring seemingly at will in the 30-50 point range.
 
Of course he was very humble himself, putting his relative success down to large rummy experience. That’s just what he’s like! Which makes it worse, in a way. J
 
I always have a whale of a time playing anyway and our very fine hosts seemed to have the game down in the five hands we played – even my wife was getting into it, coming tantalisingly close to a one suit and honours hand (40 points!) though a part of this success is my seeming inability to register the stupidity of discarding a tile she needed even after she had displayed her hand to us to ask a rules question!
 
Let’s face it – it’s just not my week.
 
Here’s the situation – Mrs Algo is collecting the character suit. This is a good choice with new players since because I was a cheapskate (see previous posts) the set we use does not have Arabic numerals,  so the new guys just chuck the character suit away as too much hard work for a few hands. I doubt she was being so cynical, btw, the cause and effect here are blurry.
She was asking about the nine tile straight (a nice bunch of points!) and we clarified that since she had already claimed 2,3,4 there was no way to incorporate that sequence into such a straight (1-3, 4-6, 7-9) and since they were learning she happily showed us her five and six during the discussion. Then on my next turn I had an orphaned four of characters – no other characters in the hand - and just chucked it away as you would. Thing is, as soon as I did it, I knew I’d screwed up. As it is she didn’t finish her hand (Martin knocked together 45 points or something) so my blushes were partly spared, but nevertheless it’s never good to throw your wife a tile you know she needs. It just looks like favouritism.

But, y’know, despite striking out at Martin’s I got straight back on the horse today lunchtime at work. Things were chugging along nicely, though with a couple of chicken hands G was able to close out his twenty point lead in game four. First hand of Game 5 and I was onto an amazing one. At the time I made a colossal error, I had a triplet of eight circles, a triplet of 9 circles and a single 7 of circles. Three consecutive triplets is worth a mighty 100 points – AND I had a triplet of White Dragons to give me another 10 points and an enormous lead (the pair was threes of characters).
 
Then I make my stupid, schoolboy mistake. I draw a tile out of sequence.
 
In non-competitive play, we have a little solution for this which involves revealing it to everyone and putting it into the dead wall face up. Not ideal, but at least things can continue on a friendly basis.
The disaster came when G drew the next tile and immediately discarded it. A SEVEN OF CIRCLES! If I hadn’t been an idiot, I would have drawn a blinking seven of circles next and just needed one more to finish my amazing hand. In the end the game got to the last three tiles in the live wall before P completed a chicken hand – the turn AFTER discarding the last seven of circles I would have needed.
 
Not a good feeling.
 
To complete the picture, I decided to beat myself up even more by checking how my play count is rising. Not Fast – see below

1 Cosmic Encounter - 35
2 Tigris & Euphrates - 2
3 Puzzle Strike - 33 (+3)
4 Tichu - 4
5 Haggis - 2
6 Summoner Wars - 4
7 Mr Jack - 11 (+1)
8 Small World - 9 (+1)
9 Mah Jong - 19 (+2)
10 Twilight Struggle - 4 (+2)
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Wed Mar 21, 2012 5:05 pm
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TS: My first win as the USA

Alec Chapman
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OK, against my regular opponent, Chris, I bashed out a turn 6, 20 point victory over the Russians. I think it went pretty well, despite obviously having the advantage and everything coming up roses, I never felt comfortable.

I think that's the nature of the beast, really. Even when I did eventually win (3 points from Arms Race and then 2 points from his failure to hit the MilOps target) it was not at a point when I thought I would swan off with the victory.

In retrospect I can see I got the balance a lot better this time with protecting Italy - though Chris' unerring ability to repeatedly roll 6 caused me problems with South America and good ol' Pakistan, which has twice been a focal point for us.

We tried realignment a lot more but did not have tonnes of success. I can see it being devastating, but the outcome is very in doubt because of the dice.

This time, Europe was a stalemate, with both of us having presence and not really being in any trouble, but I dominated in Asia and my timing was just plain better in the Middle East (lucky!). Also, I was able to get domination in South America by pretending I had taken hold there as an afterthought of repairing De Gaulle damage. I enjoy this aspect of the game a lot. It is tough to bluff a regular opponent time after time, but there will be a way - I'm sure of it!

i can't take too much from this one sided affair in terms of new strategy other than knowledge of Canada's role with Norad. I saw a bunch of cards that i hadn't before and was able to anticipate the Russian's "in" with Allende in to South America as it was in my hand with South America scoring - I played it next. Actually I horribly lost control of South and Central America soon after, but the damage was done. Even if I hadn't had the fortune of those last two points from MilOps, it was 50/50 who would have drawn South Asia scoring, and even if he had I think I had enough power there already to be up two points on that.

Most importantly, even in defeat of this kind, Chris told me he had a great time and can't wait to play again.

That's Twilight Struggle for you!
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Mon Mar 19, 2012 9:25 pm
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33 plays and still getting spanked...

Alec Chapman
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Chris and I brought out puzzle strike yesterday evening and it would be an understatement to call this a one sided affair.

I got whitewashed three-nil despite my best efforts.

I played with Setsuki for the first two games (vs Chris playing as Val), a pretty tricky choice in my experience as all of her abilities are double edged swords. One is the only free double crash gem in the game, but gives you two wound tokens every time you use it. Luckily another of her chips gives you the ability to turn these wounds into unblockable gem attacks (but at half the rate you obtain them) and the last lets you set up for an attack by putting a gem from your hand into your own pile (very risky).

It's a character against my instincts. I like to take my time and build up to the fancy stuff, but something made me get very aggressive from the offset. The classic problem in puzzle strike is that every successful attack apart from the winning one (clearly!) gives your opponent more ammunition to fire back at you. I got this balance badly wrong.

He was already the victor at two-nil so I ditched character to my favourite and old faithful, Geiger. He is my favourite thematically anyway because time travel is just cool, but in the upgrade pack he finally fulfilled his potential. The Future Sight chip is my absolute favourite in the game, giving you two extra chips and the ability to save any two chips for the next hand.

Today, Geiger's awesome chip cycling abilities were wasted as I yet again got overaggressive and handed Chris (as Grave) the chips he needed to win.

The games went on a while (a sign of equal skill between players) but I never felt I was doing anything but staving off the inevitable.

Luckily, Puzzle strike is still great fun even for three time losers like me.

I will rise again, and shout "It's Time for the past!" only to add "not that past though; one where I won!"
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Sun Mar 11, 2012 12:53 pm
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More Mah Jong, less dry

Alec Chapman
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Lincolnshire
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Today’s game saw the end of our third full game and another victory for me as my opponents were unable to score the very low points necessary to overturn my slender lead. Final score was
Alec: 20
P:16
G: -12
DB: -24
 
An interesting judgement call came up in my last hand of the day (Hand Two of Game Three).
At one point, with two sets already made (chicken ones, but I was leading, after all), my active hand consisted of the following tiles:
 
9C,9C 7B,8B,9B 7B,8B
(C=Characters, B=Bamboo)
 
I drew a tile that led to an interesting conundrum, the third nine of characters, making a concealed pung BUT jeapordising the overall plan.
 
It’s difficult to know exactly what the right thing to do is in such a situation. After all, I have two other pairs that may pay off, but the previously discarded tiles situation is crucial when making a call of this kind. I can’t remember the exact count, but I did know that the crucial nine of bamboo was definitely still out there (and hopefully not in the dead wall). What I actually did was go for “two identical sequences” and resulting 10 points and therefore discarded the third nine (a win on the alternative resulting chicken hand would only have been one point).
 
This is a crucial point – if you have self drawn something that completes a set you are under no obligation to declare this and lock it in, unlike the situation where you have claimed someone else’s discard.
 
As it happens, the very next player won on a self draw so I could not complete this hand. It was more upsetting than usual because the last tile required, the nine of Bamboo, was sitting in the living wall awaiting drawing (sometimes you just HAVE to check) so I’m comfortable I made the right call, despite it feeling unintuitive.
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Fri Mar 9, 2012 4:58 pm
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The first steps on a long road...

Alec Chapman
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Lincolnshire
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Game 3 ever of Twilight Struggle and my first time playing as the USA.

Luckily to avoid a quick loss I was playing against a new player and reaching him the game - this was Chris (see Regular Opponent no 1: The Co Host) who let his dictatorial tendencies take over and was happy to play as the USSR.

As a first time teacher of the game I am struck by how easy this one is to teach. Dr Evil may have said "I don't know phases" but this is a world domination game with a really well defined process, and I LOVE well defined processes.

Nevertheless, and this is likely to be me affecting him more than anything else, there was not a single realignment roll made during this (five turn) learning game. The defining moment was the turn one coup in Italy he pulled off, gaining immediate control and playing a Europe Scoring on the very next action round to take an early lead.

Pakistan was another bone of contention, with control changing hands before being wrestled about for quite a while as he protected his holdings in Asia (he was pretty dominant here tbh). An attempted invasion of India by Pakistan proved unsuccessful and I was unable to turn things around.

From my point of view I learned a couple of interesting things from this play. Italy requires urgent protection if possible because of a low stability rating, something I had never considered. Also, I have recognised the trouble Muslim Revolution causes for the US. You can't give up on the Middle East, obviously, but you're going to get munched in Iran and Iraq a couple of times at least.

I also felt that I conceded the initiative in Central America much too easily, allowing him almost free rein (except for Mexico). The Middle East and South America was where I was more successful, with Africa reaching a virtual stalemate.

The new player of course loved this game (he loves his political history so that's a no-brainer). It's so easy to pick up and hard to master I think we'll be exploring it for many more sessions.
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Thu Mar 8, 2012 10:53 pm
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hanging in the balance

Alec Chapman
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Lincolnshire
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Mah Jong at lunchtime and we are comfortably fitting in four hands of it every time at this point.

Following a single Kong for P in the first hand, G, desperate for the sweet smell of victory, settled for two chicken hands (rubbish hands worth a token one point). I had not really got into the game at all until my fourth hand - and since I was behind in points went back to basics.

A triplet of any one dragon is worth ten points and if you draw a pair of them the likelihood of the other players discarding them is pretty high so you can obtain a significant return for not an enormous effort.

The rest of my hand was cursory, to say the least, but it was enough to give me the lead at the halfway stage.

Current Standing:
Alec 23
P 3
G -9
"Dead Ben" - The dummy hand -17



I'm very pleased that my regular opponents, G and P are really getting the hang of the relatively complex discard claiming rules, so i thought I would explain them here.

The simplest way to win is to draw the final tile you need yourself, but in certain circumstances you can claim your opponents' discards too - in Zung Jung scoring, the big hands will cost extra points to anyone who discarded the tile claimed for the win, encouraging more skilful judgement of the odds and risks of every discard you make.

So when can you steal your opponents' tiles?

Simply put, the rule of thumb is that you can claim a discard to either complete a set or to win. Let me explain in more detail because it gets a little tricky. The order in which I will explain it is also the order of priority, if two or three players claim the same discard. 1 is the highest priority and 4 is the lowest. Ties in this priority are broken in turn order.

1) Mah Jong AKA Winning AKA Going Out
- you can claim any discard at all to complete your final sequence of any kind, or pair.

2) Four Of A Kind AKA Kong
- If you have three of a kind in hand and an opponent discards the fourth, you can claim it for a meld, skipping all players in-between and continuing as if you had just drawn from the wall. Any players in-between you and the discarder are skipped.
- Important note - if you have already melded a triplet and someone discards the fourth tile of that kind, you MAY NOT meld with it. This is because otherwise your opponent will have a tile they KNOW they should not discard and therefore it's a case of hand your opponent some points or hold onto a potentially useless tile and lose your chances of winning.

3) Triplet AKA Pung AKA Pong (hee hee!)
- You can claim a discard from any opponent to complete three of a kind, making it your turn to discard (i.e. you skip forward to your turn)

4) Sequence AKA Chow
- You can claim a discard from the immediately preceding player ONLY. You cannot claim sequences from anyone else unless it is to win. The rationale behind this is, presumably, that sequences are far too easy to create if you can claim them from anywhere.

I hope this clears up any questions some people may have.
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Mon Feb 27, 2012 8:13 pm
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The shape of things to come

Alec Chapman
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Right then, I'm starting to get down to business on this.

Saturday night, following a hideous trip to the cinema we played three games of Mr Jack and one of Small World.

Strictly speaking, one should play Mr Jack as a "first to three" type of game since it gives both players a shot at playing both roles twice, but three games in a row seems to be how much embarrassment I am willing to take.

In game one things were pretty dicey. Chris (as the investigator) had it narrowed down to three suspects and was closing in inexorably on the true villain, though it should be noted that at no stage in this game does it not feel like you're about to get discovered.

But suddenly, the unthinkable happened. We alternate dealing the character cards, shuffling and laying out half of them for choosing between. For some reason, some may call it police brutality, Chris instead dealt four alibi cards. This broke the game, and he had to forfeit the first round.

Game two and I was in the slightly less stressful position of investigator. This game turned on an outrageous fluke that left a very annoyed opponent. I looked at the board situation and realised that I could not eliminate inspector Lestrade before my opponent could escape with him. This meant I would have to accuse someone or lose on the next turn, or so I thought. I accused Jeremy Bert, because I had a feeling he was being set up as the beneficiary of a potential Lestrade bluff.

Thing is, Lestrade could never have escaped, because he was visible. In Mr Jack, Jack can only make his escape if he is out of sight (obviously enough) and Lestrade was stood next to a light.
A rudimentary error of logic left me essentially tossing a coin and it was pure luck that meant I was right.

Game three was a straightforward victory for Chris as his investigator made short work of eliminating all the other suspects and using Sherlock Holmes to eliminate one of the last two.

So strictly speaking I won the night's Mr Jack confrontation 2 games to 1, but neither victory was worthy of great praise.

Small World was a three player affair - Mrs Algo joined us and promptly destroyed the world with her Peace Loving Ratmen (a great choice as first player) and Pillaging Pixies (a super excellent alliterative combo).

However, I kept up the pace with my Flying Amazons and Corrupt Skeletons before taking a crucial and game winning second decline to take over the Fortified Homunculi.

Chris did not have a good game and didn't even count the points his Merchant Tritons, Barricade Wizards and Seafaring Ghouls (a poor second decline choice, IMHO) got for him.

Final score was

Alec 129
Kitty 113
Chris DNC

I enjoyed this game immensely and the 16 point gap does't really reflect how much my third race turned defeat into victory.

I could get used to this!
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Mon Feb 27, 2012 7:11 pm
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Seven Pairs and a brush with reality.

Alec Chapman
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Oh dear. Already the rules of the challenge are really starting to hurt.
Popping into the BGG sphere to check up on this blog, I become distracted by new bits and pieces, as one always is.
 
I see that, for example, there’s a new Summoner Wars deck imminent, Puzzle strike is getting a full size expansion, a new Cosmic Encounter expansion (with Teams! TEAMS!) on the way and all those feelings of pointless desire come bubbling up to the surface again. Like anybody struggling with a need to purchase, the danger here is falling off the wagon immediately and placing some preorders. I guess I’ll just have to suck it all up and hope for the pangs to go away. A game or two each evening should be the required fix like my three games of Mr Jack the other day that proved to me once again that it will take 100 plays for me to stop being appalling at it.
 
(And there’s always birthdays and Christmas for the expansions)
 
--------------------------
 
In any case, my maiden victory in Mah jong yesterday (accompanied by a very nice Ham and Mustard sandwich) was a timely distraction from these little wobbles. Split over two lunchtimes, this is probably the first game we’ve played where everyone knew roughly what they were doing. The still incomplete “seven chicken hands” learning game is a testament to the steep curve of learning new tiles, combinations and terminology.
 
The design of this particular scoring set gives a few different routes out of a dodgy hand, with significant increases in your rewards for seemingly minor changes in the approach, at the expense of speed. It’s possible to win a game with five crappy one point (“chicken”) hands so long as everyone else is in a rush, too, but all it takes is one of your opponents grabbing one triplet of dragons for ten points to put you and your quick chicken hands approach out of the running completely.
 
The hand that really won this game for me was the irregular escape route of “Seven Pairs”. There were no particularly high scoring sets made, so this was a real game changer in this context.
Normally you are required to go out on a hand of four sets of three/four and a pair. One can think of these as the four legs and the eyes of a dragon if it helps you remember.
 
Pairs in the hand are absolutely critical in Mah Jong as you cannot win without at least one and you can only claim a discard to make a pair if it is the only tile you need to win.
Many times I have stupidly turned my only pair into a triplet and cost myself a potential victory because no more duplicates appeared.
 
Of course, if you are unlucky, you can get stuck with a whole hand of doubles. If the seven pairs option didn’t exist, your chances are sadly pretty low of drawing or grabbing the exact pieces in the exact order required (with a whole bunch of irritating 50/50 discard decisions along the way) to turn this into a win and you may as well play defensive and hoard the pairs until either the tiles run out or someone else wins, because if you have two of a tile it is impossible for someone else to use them in a set.
 
The seven pairs hand gives you a way to still turn your otherwise sticky hand into a cool 90 points (30 from each opponent). Nice.
 
I then got a little carried away in round six and decided to try for the far more difficult “thirteen terminals” hand, where you need to self draw all thirteen different honours, ones and nines, and get a duplicate of any of these. I came within three tiles of this combination and 480 points (160 from each opponent), which would have been almost unassailable in this context, but to no avail. There was no win in this hand.
 
Mah Jong really has seemed to capture the imaginations of two of my colleagues (with a third far less keen) but we’ve found that having a “dead” fourth hand, rotating position before each deal and merely drawing one and discarding the next in its “queue” still gives us much of the feel of the full four hands without the less nice feeling that someone is humouring us.
 
We are also now well known to the local watering hole’s staff – one of my main concerns with trying to play this game in a public place was the staff being negative towards us or patrons giving us hassle. I think the fact that it’s such an obscure game in England means we get some odd looks, but that’s been the sum total of the negative feeling. The abstract nature of the game is critical in this. If we were moving little space aliens around, we could have a lot more trouble – not least from other colleagues (not the most accepting bunch).
 
In fact, the pub staff members we deal with have generally been overwhelmingly positive. It seems they’re actually of the opinion that we represent a positive factor for them. There’s a first.
One should always treasure and cultivate a good playing spot.
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Fri Feb 24, 2012 10:40 am
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